Workplace gender equality: The problems to fix are in our heads

Sarah Goss, Head of Innovation at Ericsson Australia & New Zealand, Founding Director of Umps Health.
This article is reposted from Sarah’s website.

In April this year, Chief Economist of The Australia Institute, Dr. Richard Denniss, gave an address to the Victorian Women’s Trust on ‘The 3 Big Lies Holding Women Back’.  I have watched it several times, and shared it many more.  One of the uncomfortable truths he spoke aloud included this:

The inequality in the Australian labour market is not some accident. It’s not some undiscovered problem that is yet to percolate to the top of the political agenda because of the lack of evidence. A lot of powerful people in Australia are entirely happy with it.  That, is what you’re up against.”

And Australia is not alone.  In no country in the world today are women equal.  In fact, in the 2017 Global Gender Gap Index Report published last month, the World Economic Forum projects it will take 217 years to reach gender equality in our workplaces. That means it will be another 7 generations before we see workplace gender equality – or, until my great, great, great, great, great, great grandchildren enter the workforce.

I would probably be forgiven for throwing my hands up in the air in despair, but I prefer to adopt a systems thinking approach; it permits me to be a little more optimistic.  Systems change takes time – sometimes generations – but every action we take today can create positive knock-on effects, moving towards the dismantling of interrelated structures that maintain the status quo in our workplaces.

There are many barriers to tackle, but I’ve found a few prickly ones.  It’s because they are the ones that most often make people bristle that I know I am hitting on truths we can’t ignore.

We all need to face up to challenging our own thinking and preconceptions, and commit to 3 fundamental changes in our collective mindset.  The problems to fix start in our heads.

Mindset shift #1: Give up the belief that your organisation is a meritocracy

As the numbers crunched by industry expert Conrad Liveris show, women comprise only 4.5% of all ASX 200 CEOs.  There are more CEOs of ASX 200 companies called either John, Peter or David than there are women CEOs in total.  Liveris’ analysis further reveals that Australian leadership is blindingly white.  Only 3.9% of ASX executives have non-European backgrounds.

The Australian Human Rights Commission also conducted research into the cultural diversity of Australia’s leadership.  It found that 95% or thereabouts of senior leaders in Australian business, politics, government, and civil society are white.

As Liveris points out, “straight, white, able-bodied men aged 40-69 years, which represents the majority of Australian leadership, are 8.4 per cent of the population.”

If we are to believe that our companies, institutions and other organisations see the valuing, reward and elevation of people based on their merit, then we are to believe that straight, white, middle-aged men have a monopoly on merit.  We know this isn’t true.

Now, I am not saying that men in these roles haven’t worked hard to get to where they are, or that they are undeserving of their positions.  I am not attempting to detract from their competence, work ethic, commitment or otherwise.  But, there are clearly other factors at play.

It is time to drop the myth that our workplaces are meritocratic.  No organisation is a meritocracy until it has accounted for all of its inherent and unspoken biases.

Mindset shift #2: We will not have gender equality in our workplaces, until we have gender equality in our homes

If the stats overwhelmingly show us that men are the leaders at work, then in comparable magnitude they also prove undeniably that women are the leaders at home.

Research such as the Melbourne Institute’s HILDA survey demonstrates that there are still very entrenched conventions about the differing roles between the genders.  The study shows that even many women subscribe to the construct of ‘male breadwinner, female homemaker’, reflecting just how strong the societal conditioning and accepted norms are around women’s place in Australia.

According to the federal government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA), three quarters of all unpaid work is done by women.  This includes activities such as cooking, cleaning, washing, gardening, home maintenance, looking after children, caring for the elderly or a family member with a long-term health condition or disability, and doing voluntary community work.

The WGEA quantifies the difference between men and women’s time spent on these activities to an average ‘gender time gap in unpaid work’ of 2 hours and 19 minutes per day.  Or, for every one hour of unpaid work that men do, women do almost double.  Professor Mark Wooden, Director of the HILDA survey says,

“Women still take on the bulk of household chores and assume greater child care responsibilities. This means that men are spending more time at work building experience, skills and networks.  Until we see a greater sharing of roles and responsibilities at home, women, on average, will always be disadvantaged in the labour market relative to men.”

We are far from having equality in our homes.  If we do not acknowledge that we must address women’s unpaid workload, we will not see more equal participation and representation of women in paid work.

Mindset shift #3: You cannot claim free will and blame women’s choices

At this point, some may be tempted to rationalise that it’s women’s choice to stay at home with the kids, or to cut back to a part-time role, or to take on more basic work, or to be naturally drawn to lower-paying professions, or to not put themselves forward for promotions because they are not that career-oriented, or… the list goes on.

However, when the gender stereotype of the role of women is so engrained in our culture, we have to recognise the impact of context.

This week I had the privilege of meeting Professor Michelle Ryan from the University of Exeter, UK, and hearing her present at the Future of Work Conference on her research into how context constrains women’s work choices.  Immediately following, I joined her and other industry leaders on a panel discussing ‘Beyond Token Diversity’.

Ryan has found a direct correlation between women’s feelings of fitting in and belonging in an organisation, and how ambitious and committed they are at work.  Women must see potential benefit and reward for their ambition, motivation, risk-taking, and sacrifices at work.  Their ‘choices’ do not occur in a vacuum, they are shaped and constrained by organisational and social context.

In this way, Ryan’s evidence proves it is too simplistic to accept the popular belief that women opt for a work-life balance based predominantly on the practicalities of time and how to juggle it between work and family.  Just as important as time is how a woman feels about the workplace.  She explains,

“It’s not just about time – how many hours they work – it’s feeling like you’re similar to others before you; if people like you have made it.  Being similar to successful others reinforces your identity – who you have to be to be successful at work, is compatible with who you are at home.”

Time + identity = ‘work-life compatibility’.  To maximise compatibility of a workplace for women, organisations need to think about how they can foster a sense of belonging so that women can see the possibility to thrive as their whole selves at work.

From behind the hollow defence lines

If we want to see genuine change in workplace gender equality, we need to question our assumptions and notions of ‘merit’ and ‘women’s choice’, and address the inequality in the division of unpaid work in our homes.  To stand behind false beliefs to the contrary will only continue to hinder our progress against inequality.

And 217 years is too long for any of us to wait.

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Caring for ageing parents: flexible work and technology innovation

Sarah Goss, Head of Innovation at Ericsson Australia & New Zealand, Founding Director of Umps Health
This article is reposted from Sarah’s website.

“I don’t know how you do it!”, is a remark I often hear when people learn that I am an executive at Ericsson, Founding Director of a start-up, and a mother and primary carer for two young kids.

But balancing work and family life goes beyond caring for children.  With our ageing population, the demand for people to provide care for a family member who is in old age or has a serious illness or disability has risen sharply.

Care to work differently

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 2.7 million Australians are ‘informal carers’.  That’s one in eight Australians delivering an average of 13 hours of care per week to an older family member, or a family member in need due to disability or illness.  Put another way, Australia’s informal carers are working full-time 2 days a week delivering care.  Unpaid.  Meaning their work is not formally recognised for the $60.3 billion of economic value it contributes to our national economy.  Like me, even if you’re not an informal carer yourself, you know someone who is.  They are the backbone of our healthcare system and community.

The burden of providing these 1.9 billion hours of informal care every year is disproportionately shouldered by women.  More than two thirds of informal carers are women, with most aged between 55 and 64.  I use the word ‘burden’ because 44% of working-age primary carers have opted out of the workforce (ABS), and the prevalence of depression is 67% higher among these high-intensity carers than non-carers.

This over-reliance on informal carers and the personal toll it takes on them is in urgent need of redress.  There is no silver bullet, but employers can play a role to improve support for ‘working carers’.

More job-share, yeah yeah!

It can be very difficult for informal carers to get back into the workforce if they’ve opted out as nearly half of them do.  Working carers often seek part-time work to better enable them to balance work and care, but part-time jobs are hard to come by.  Informal carers are typically older workers, so without workplace flexibilities and quality part-time work options for especially older employees, balancing paid work with caring for family members such as spouses and ageing parents can be extremely challenging.

The struggle to cope with managing work and care is not dissimilar to the experience I have had working whilst also caring for my young children.  I have been working 3 days a week in senior roles for almost 7 years, since I returned to work after having my first son. I have worked in a straight part-time role, and in a job-share.  Job-sharing is where a full-time position is held by two people, and I believe there is more potential for this model of job design to work particularly well for working carers.

These are the benefits I can attest to from being a primary carer and a job-sharer:

  • You can switch off on your non-work days.  Your job-share buddy is on the job, so you are able to focus on your caring responsibilities.
  • You have built in redundancy.  You can shuffle days between you or cover for one another if emergencies or extra-ordinary events arise.  There is another ‘you’, so you’re not a single point of weakness. You can rest assured knowing that your customers, staff, colleagues and stakeholders will not be let down.
  • You can still work in a senior role despite working part-time. Most senior roles are full-time, so job-sharing opens up access to these roles even though you work part-time.  You can continue to progress in your career with minimal disruption, if any.
  • You can satisfy other drivers and interests that you have that caring maybe doesn’t fulfil. Being able to work, and in a flexible and manageable way, can contribute to your overall wellbeing by giving you an outlet for professional pursuits and relationships with workmates.  It can also help alleviate the pressure and loneliness that many carers face.

When looking at ABS data (Table 37.1), it can be concluded that most jobs held by working carers are suited to job-share.  Furthermore, there could be specific promise in the wider availability of job-share opportunities for the 39% of working carers who are Managers or Professionals – some 522,000 Australians – to support them in continuing their career at a senior level.

Some tech with that too, please

I have friends who are informal carers who worry for their older family member, or feel guilty that they are not there ‘enough’.  More flexible work arrangements can certainly help working carers, but in combination with new advances in smart technology, carers can be reassured of the welfare of their loved one even when they’re not physically present with them.

Umps Health provides one such smart technology solution.  It offers a wellbeing detection system so that as older people living at home alone use their everyday appliances, usage can be tracked to detect any abnormalities in routine and then raise alerts to carers.

And for informal carers searching for ‘career worthy’ part-time, job-share or other types of flexible roles, you can be matched with employers in the connected job market through online marketplaces such as Beam Australia and OneJob TwoMinds.

A better way

Flexible work arrangements such as part-time hours and job-sharing can encourage better physical, mental and financial health for informal carers.  Smart technology can empower them with information about their older loved one and provide greater peace of mind.  Given our population is ageing and the demand on informal carers is at breaking point, it is clear Australia needs to look at these and other ideas for a better way of care.

If you are a working carer and would like to share your story, I would love to hear from you.

Sarah Goss works in a part-time executive role as Head of Innovation at Ericsson Australia & New Zealand and is also Founding Director at HealthTech start-up, Umps Health.

Twitter: @SarahGossAU

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